The Petrel

Here is a true story.

A fifty foot flat out ocean racing sailboat and birding? Not the usual combination one thinks of when it comes to close encounters of the bird kind. 

In this case Carey, my girlfriend and I were offered an opportunity to help deliver the boat from Seattle to San Fransisco. We were naturally focused on the sailing part and hardly gave the birding part a second thought. 

It turned out to be a fast nonstop three day trip with a bit of unexpected birding in the middle. July is not always the best time of year to be out in the North Pacific. However we lucked out with clear skies, boisterous NW winds between 27 and 48 knots with long gorgeous wave sets from the starboard aft quarter. (Wind and waves behind us)

From a sailing point of view the conditions were of course supremely brilliant. In my mind they paled in comparison to the unexpected surprise that was to come.

On the second day gaudy sunset slipping into a liquid clear twilight found us roughly a 100 miles offshore. The winds were slowly building to 46 knots. A bit scary but we were managing.

Carey, skipper and I were discussing standing sailing orders for the night when we were literally stunned to silence by what came next. A Fork-tailed Storm Petrel had seemingly appeared out of nowhere in our midst. It was hovering effortlessly, its calm demeanour suggesting a wish to take its own slow time looking us over.

After some thought it glided over to Carey, its delicate feet dangling below like a ballet dancer en pointe. Peering inquisitively into her startled face for a moment it then with little fuss glided over to our skipper. While it was holding station before him It seemed very clear to us that it was considering him with an amused look. Content with its assessment and with only a brief shiver of its wings it floated over to a delighted me standing at the wheel. When it was inches away from my face it cocked its head and with its bright black eye looked straight into my own. I held my breath trying to stop time.

As it drifted away into the gathering dark we were still silent. That moment will forever be with me, how can it not?

Thinking about it afterwards,

The birds situational awareness and capacity for pinpoint accuracy while holding station and in those conditions was nothing short of amazing. 

Remember we were averaging 20 knots of boat speed downwind in 40 knots of wind. That meant the apparent wind coming across the deck felt like 20. The bird was keeping pace with the boat while both facing astern and into the wind. So essentially it was floating backwards at 20 knots while maintaining a constant height relative to the deck of the boat. That boat was continually changing elevation as we surged up and down the large wave sets.

Think about that for a minute. Adapted to its environment is perhaps an appropriate phrase but certainly the innate physical math and flight skills involved were spectacular to witness.

Others may disagree but It’s singular behaviour towards us during that encounter was for me evidence enough for an inquisitive intelligence. The bird was simply curious and carried out its obvious investigations deliberately.

An unforgettable event? indeed.

Also, it was a lifer!


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